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Coming in 2014: MacBooks as fast as data center servers

With four I/O lanes, the newest PCIe G2 flash drives will offer 2GBs throughput

December 16, 2013 02:05 PM ET

Computerworld - Solid-state drives (SSDs) will undergo a major change next year: the predominant interface will begin moving from SATA III to PCIe Generation 2.0 in data centers and higher-end laptops.

According to a new research report from Trendforce's research division, DRAMeXchange, this year's Macbook Air and MacBook Pro laptops already come equipped with PCIe G2 SSDs, which have two I/O lanes (known as PCIe G2x2). Next year, "it is highly likely" that Apple will upgrade to PCIe G2x4, offering four I/O lanes and up to 2GBs throughput.

PCIe G2
A speed test performed on a new MacBook Pro with the PCIe G2 SSD shows performance that's 200MB/s to 300MB/s faster than SATA III SSDs.

Other PC brands are likely to follow Apple's lead, according to DRAMeXchange's senior manager Alan Chen.

"In 2014, both Microsoft's Windows 8.1 and Intel's Broadwell CPU are expected to provide in-box drivers that are compatible with PCIe G2 SSDs," Chen said in a statement. "In addition to bolstering the existing faith in the technology, the Wintel group's aforementioned decision will help lower the threshold for many of the SSD controller chip manufacturers that are hoping to use the PCIe G2 format."

PC manufacturers are still deciding whether to adopt PCIe G2x2 or PCIe G2x4 for 2014.

With the price gap between them shrinking, "PCIe G2 has a legitimate chance of becoming the mainstream PC SSD format in 2015," Chen said. "TrendForce projects that the PCIe G2x4 format will ultimately win out."

As PCEe G2 gains momentum in higher-end systems, so, too, will SATA III TLC SSDs in lower-end laptops and desktops, according the DRAMeXchange.

That's not the only change expected for SSDs next year. A second trend expected to take hold will be the growing use of triple-level cell (TLC) SSDs in low and midrange computer products. That should drive the price of SSDs down in general.

All SSDs that save two or more bits per transistor of memory are known as multi-level cell (MLC) flash. Currently, the most popular MLC flash stores two bits of data per transistor or "cell". This past fall, however, Samsung started mass producing flash that stores three bits of data per cell, known in marketing terms as triple-level cell (TLC) flash memory.

The greatest advantage to TLC NAND flash is that it increases flash density by roughly 33%, reducing the cost to produce the flash. Those savings, traditionally, are passed on to the consumer and make SSDs more marketable to the general public.

Samsung's new 1TB TLC SSD came online on sites such as Pricegrabber.com for $599, well below the 80 cents per gigabyte that traditional two-bit MLC flash costs.

"Given how the value of Samsung's recent TLC SSD is being widely praised within the market, a number of SSD vendors have begun developing similar products that are geared towards 2014," Chen said. "With concerns looming over the general life span and data retention of TLC SSDs, the PC [makers] are likely to only apply the component in their lower-end products during the initial phases."

Given that TLC SSDs can compete effectively against solid-state hybrid drives, which combine NAND flash cache with a traditional spinning disk, TrendForce predicts that the competition among the three formats will become more intense.

covers consumer data storage, consumerization of IT, mobile device management, renewable energy, telematics/car tech and entertainment tech for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at Twitter @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed Mearian RSS. His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

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